The weekly spin: The Alejandro Valverde conundrum

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The joy on Alejandro Valverde’s face was unmistakable. Upon crossing the finish line as the new road world champion, he buried his head into the arms of a soigneur, and began to sob. This wasn’t just happiness, but rather an emotional release.

After spending his entire career chasing a rainbow jersey, six times finishing on the podium, the 38-year-old Spaniard had finally done it. He would immediately call the world title the best result of his career, high praise for a rider who has seemingly won every other race he’s targeted.

No matter who you are, witnessing another human being who has chased a goal for all of their adult life finally reach it, on an international stage, is a poignant moment. Valverde sobbed in the team tent, and the emotion continued to flow in his post-race interviews.

We all saw the emotion on Valverde’s face. We all saw what it meant to him, particularly after his devastating crash at the 2017 Tour de France, which could have ended his career. It was touching. It was a moment of true humanity.

Alejandro Valverde (Spain) won ahead of Romain Bardet (France) and Michael Woods (Canada) at the 2018 Road World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria.

But Valverde’s emotion wasn’t the only slice of humanity on the podium in Innsbruck.

Second-place finisher Romain Bardet, of France, appeared despondent, momentarily speechless. Third-place finisher Michael Woods, of Canada, looked exhausted, likely happy with one of the best results of his young career, but certainly also questioning what might have been. I certainly wondered that, given Woods’ emotional disclosure of his wife’s recent stillbirth, revealed after his recent stage win at the Vuelta a España, his first major victory.

One of the most accomplished riders of his generation, Valverde served a suspension in 2010 and 2011 after a bag of his blood, containing EPO, was DNA matched by Italian anti-doping officials who had taken a blood sample at the 2008 Tour de France. Valverde admitted nothing. He apologized for nothing. He steadfastly denied, in the face of overwhelming evidence, and has never showed an ounce of contrition. He returned to racing in 2012, winning at his first race back. He was the top-ranked rider in the sport in 2014 and 2015, as he had been in 2006 and 2008.

The same cannot be said of Bardet or Woods, two riders who have never been accused, nor convicted, of using performance-performance-enhancing methods, and have both spoken out strongly against doping. I wondered what kind of emotion we would’ve seen on their faces, had they won, and what it would have meant to them.

But based on Valverde’s past, not everyone reacted the same way to the fact that he will spend the next 12 months in pro cycling’s hallowed rainbow jersey. Emotions were running hot along cycling fans and journalists as well. Twitter exploded. I tweeted something similar to the sentiment in the paragraph above, and that tweet has had over 100,000 impressions in 24 hours.

Some are in the “anyone but Valverde” camp, others in the “that was years ago, he’s free to race, let it go” camp. Like so many issues in today’s political climate, it’s quickly become a divisive topic, and at times, the dialogue has become nasty.

Personally, I didn’t have a visceral reaction to Valverde’s world title either way. I get why people are happy for him; he’s 38 and been chasing this rainbow jersey his entire career. However I do have thoughts about what it represents. Like many, I would’ve welcomed Bardet, or Woods, as the new world champion. Some of that just comes down to wanting to see an underdog win. But I also understand why, for so many, it was a disappointing moment for the sport — a moment that will last well into 2019.

Alejandro Valverde is a human being, a professional athlete who made the decision, like so many others did, to clandestinely employ a Spanish doctor for blood doping; to fight in court against a sanction in the years that followed; to not acknowledge, admit, or apologize for his sins; and to get back to business as though nothing had happened. He is also a human being, by all counts humble and well respected by teammates, who cried real tears of joy, who called Sunday’s race the best day of his career, and who brought his children onto the podium to celebrate the moment with him. All of these things can be true at once.

But Alejandro Valverde is also a symbol. He represents an era that is almost, but not quite, removed from today’s peloton. The rainbow jersey is also a symbol, one of the most iconic images in all of cycling, and the defining representation of the UCI, the sport’s international governing body. And for the next 12 months, those symbols will share the same space.

‘I haven’t done anything wrong’

I was standing at the finish in London when Alexander Vinokourov won the 2012 London Olympics road race. There was a hush as he crossed the line. The Kazakh rider, who had been caught blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France and served a two-year suspension, had never shown contrition for his actions. No remorse, no guilt, no explanation. And yet there he was, the Olympic champion. The headline in the Sydney Morning Herald the following day was “The victor that no one wanted to see.”

Asked if he had turned the page since serving his ban and returning to racing in 2009, Vinokourov answered, ”You had to ask that question in 2010. Then it was relevant. For me, I have closed that page two years ago. I have done my maximum for cycling. That is my life. It is not the moment for me to talk about doping.”

And while that was perhaps a disappointing response, it’s more than Valverde has ever offered.

I was also standing at the summit finish in Courchevel at the 2005 Tour de France, when Valverde crossed the finish line ahead of Lance Armstrong. I recall Valverde being ecstatic, his first Tour stage win, and Armstrong almost in shock, both that he’d been beaten, and that someone had dared beat him. I had witnessed firsthand the rider who had been hailed “El Imbatido” — The Unbeaten One —  as a junior.

Valverde took his first Tour de France stage win at Courchevel in 2005, ahead of Lance Armstrong.

Valverde turned professional in 2002. He finished third at the Vuelta a España in 2003, and fourth the following year. In 2006, he would win both Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège for the first time; since then he’s won Flèche on five occasions, and Liège on four occasions.

That 2006 season was also the beginning of what would become a permanent stain on Valverde’s career when national police raided the Madrid laboratory of doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, seizing nearly 200 blood bags as well as EPO, steroids, and growth hormone.

Through coded nicknames and race calendars, and ultimately DNA matches, among dozens of prominent riders linked to what was dubbed Operacion Puerto by Spanish authorities included two of the sport’s biggest stars, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso. By any measure, it was the biggest doping scandal in the history of professional cycling. Within two years, the UCI would institute its biological passport program, aimed at monitoring fluctuations in blood volume to detect any form of blood doping.

Basso was suspended in 2007 and 2008 after admitting, upon being confronted with a DNA test matching samples from a seized blood bag to his own blood, that he had intended to perform a transfusion. Ullrich never raced again, and though for years he denied any wrongdoing, in 2013 he finally admitted to working with Fuentes, saying, “Almost everybody back then took performance-enhancing substances. I didn’t take anything which the others were not taking.”

Alejandro Valverde won his third Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2015, ahead of Julian Alaphilippe.

Valverde was linked to Bag 18, which was coded Valv-Piti — so named for his German Shepherd. He denied any involvement. He contested the charges, first brought forward by the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI), arguing against issues of jurisdiction and chain of custody, questioning the credibility of the DNA analysis, and challenging the Barcelona laboratory used to detect EPO in Bag 18. The case dragged on for years. At no point did Valverde or his attorneys provide any reason that would explain why his blood was found in Dr. Fuentes’ laboratory.

The case went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and in March 2010, CAS upheld CONI’s two-year ban. Three months later, at a separate hearing where arguments were made by the UCI and WADA, CAS ruled that the ban would be worldwide. One of the biggest names in professional cycling had been suspended, in May 2010, for anti-doping violations that took place some time before May 2006.

Valverde apologized for nothing. He trained hard throughout his suspension, returned with the same team, and got back to his winning ways. At the 2012 Movistar team presentation, Valverde famously said, “I haven’t done anything wrong. I’ve always respected the law. My conscience is clean.”

He went on to win a stage at the 2012 Tour Down Under, his first race back. That year he also won Rota del Sol, a stage of the Tour de France, and a stage at the Vuelta, where he finished second overall to compatriot Alberto Contador, who took his first Grand Tour win following his own suspension that year.

Since then, Valverde has won 60-something races, been the top rider in the WorldTour on two occasions, and taken a bronze medal at the world championships three years running, from 2012-2014, making him the rider with the most worlds podium finishes in history without a victory.

That all changed on Sunday.

WHEN SYMBOLS CLASH

After the world championship race on Sunday, Belgian Greg Van Avermaet, the 33-year-old Olympic champion and Paris-Roubaix winner, referred to Valverde as “the best rider of his generation,” and called him a “deserving winner.”

“I don’t think you should give a lot of weight to his past,” Van Avermaet told Het Nieuwsblad. “He is so consistent in his performances. I don’t think he is still doing that sort of stuff. He deserves this title. He had been on the podium so often in the worlds. I am very satisfied with him, he is the best rider of his generation. He had to wait a long time and this was his last chance and he grabbed it. This is pure talent. He is there from February to now. That is a sign of pure talent, a real classic rider. He is a deserved winner.”

What struck me in that quote, however, is Van Avermaet’s choice of words — “his generation.” His generation. Not mine. Not ours. And I think that’s a key component in the dissatisfaction so many associated with Valverde’s win — it’s a reminder of a dark era in cycling many would like to put behind them.

The previous world champion, Peter Sagan, is 28. Romain Bardet is 27. Mike Woods is 31. None of these riders were in the pro peloton when Operacion Puerto rocked the sport; they entered the pro ranks in 2009, 2012, and 2013, respectively — after the UCI’s biological passport was put into place, after a shift in mindset had begun.

Yes, there is still doping in cycling. No, it’s not rampant as it was 10 or 20 years ago. Riders are still cheating the system, and cheating one another, but there are far fewer riders doing it, and the advantages they are gaining have been mitigated to a significant degree. From what I have seen, and heard, I believe riders born in the late-80s and 1990s are part of a cleaner, if not totally clean, generation.

I can’t say anything with certainty about Valverde. I know he has passed all his doping controls since he returned from his suspension, but he also passed all his doping controls prior to his suspension. It was a police investigation, not a doping control, that netted the Spaniard a violation.

I know that Valverde has raced at the same level, following his suspension, as he did prior to it. The same thing could not be said for riders like Basso and Contador. It’s entirely possible that a successful doped rider, winning against a doped peloton, would also be a successful clean rider winning against a clean peloton. I do know that Valverde has never shown contrition, so it’s not clear to me why anyone should give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that his views have changed since 2006, or 2009, or 2012. Maybe they have, but how would we know? Why should we believe in his results? Should his win be received differently than Vinokourov’s Olympic gold medal in 2012? If so, why? If not, why not? How can one expect to be forgiven if they are unrepentant?

And perhaps it’s just this — Valverde doesn’t care about forgiveness. Perhaps he believes he did nothing wrong. Perhaps the same is true for Vinokourov.

After six podium appearances at the road worlds since 2003, Alejandro Valverde (Spain) finally won the rainbow jersey in Innsbruck at the 2018 Road World Championships.

What we do know is this: Valverde served his suspension, and is free to ride under the same rules, under the same doping controls, as everyone else. The UCI held a world championship on Sunday, and the strongest eligible rider, racing with a very dedicated national team, won.

There was a race, and there was a winner, but just as in London in 2012, that doesn’t mean all cycling fans are going to embrace it.

Forgiveness is highly subjective. For many, an acknowledgment or apology would go a long way toward redemption, something Valverde has never attempted to do. Part of me hoped he might take the opportunity, in front of the world cycling community — perhaps in his post-race press conference — to finally address his sins of the past, acknowledge the issue, and attempt to finally put it all behind him. That did not happen.

But, as one person commented on Twitter, there is no rule saying an athlete “must grovel” after being suspended for doping: “He did his time, and he has had zero scandals since. He doesn’t owe you, the sport, or anyone else an apology.”

And that’s correct. Valverde doesn’t owe anyone an apology. But fans don’t owe him their support, either. Everyone’s entitled to react to his world title in their own way. There is no clean, easy answer to this. It all comes down to the court of public opinion. Everyone gets a vote.


The weekly spin is a new column from our Editor at Large, offering commentary and analysis on topics ranging from racing to tech to industry to travel to simple observations from the saddle.

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